I grew up Jewish in Houston, Texas, a minority in terms of culture and religion, and experienced what it was like to be “the other.” I didn’t look different but felt like an outsider. My grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from Russia, Poland and Holland. They wanted to assimilate, to be “regular Americans,” and they had to give up much of their own cultures and traditions. It felt like we had lost our cultures on the way to becoming Americans. Thankfully things have changed, and now we can celebrate our unique cultures.
I came to Somerville 32 years ago. I wanted to raise my son in a city with diversity and people from everywhere. He did not experience the separation that I did growing up.
I started photographing kids for this project about 7 years ago. Two things motivated me. First, I love being around young people, and experiencing a bit of their world. They have not learned to hide themselves so much, and in general, still feel comfortable in their own skin.
As I heard the stories these families shared about their lives, I was struck by all the challenges that immigrant families face here. Parenting is hard enough without adding an extra layer of difficulties. Besides the photos, I decided to include the stories that families have shared*, because we who were born here need to know exactly what it is like for our immigrant neighbors. We need to know the personal stories, not just what we see on the news.
I have met more than 55 families, from 50 different countries. I have shared meals with families from Iraq, Turkey, Nepal and Cape Verde. I have seen dances from Nicaragua, China, and the Philippines. In the world we want, having friends from all over the world would not be a strange thing, it would be just normal. It’s unfortunate that our world is not yet like that.
Kevin & Brandon – GUATEMALA
“If American people went to Guatemala, then they would feel what it’s like to be in a new country, where everything is strange. Maybe then they would treat immigrants better here.” — Kevin
Maria – EL SALVADOR
“They can’t have freedom in El Salvador. They’re killing them there so they can get their money and stuff like that. But, the police are trying to get all the bad guys. So they have to get freedom in America. But if they don’t have papers… If the ICE police get you, you have to go back to your country. When my dad and me and my mom and my grandmother were driving, we saw the ICE police so we started running a little more in the car.” — Maria
Van Ado – DOMINICA
“I consider myself American, as a citizen, but… it’s not where my roots come from… I was just born here. American is just a label, it doesn’t mean anything. My blood is from Dominica.” — Van Ado
Zahraa – IRAQ
“It was scary when we got here — everything was different, it was winter and we only had shorts and flip-flops. We came from the refugee camp and didn’t have winter clothes!” — Zahraa
Carlos – EL SALVADOR
“Firstly, it’s not easy to be an immigrant. What happens to you on the journey – you have to suffer violence and assault. I came by land, over the border, walking. It was more than one month of walking in the desert in Mexico to Arizona. You have to keep walking, if you stop you can end up lost or the animals might eat you. If you don’t wake up or you don’t walk you can get lost. No one is responsible for anyone but themselves.” — Carlos’s mother (interpreted from Spanish)
Syalomee – NEPAL
“Some people think, once they came to America, all the problems would be solved. But that’s not the way it is. We’re still going through pain and missing home.” — Syalomee
Maya & Sofia – ALGERIA
“When I left Algeria, in the ‘90’s it was really bad because of terrorism. It scarred me for life. Nothing happened to me, to my family, but my cousin’s husband was killed. My dad worked for the government, so we were always worried, is he home safe, is he gonna be killed, God forbid. When I got the green card, I was one of the lucky ones….. I miss my parents, my family, my friends. I don’t miss how the government runs the country, I don’t miss the lack of safety. I had a wonderful childhood. But the bad memories took over.” — Maya & Sofia’s mother
Ava Noel – PORTUGAL
“My friend says if Donald Trump becomes president, they’re all going to move away to another country. My other friend, she said “well my parents are illegal”, and I said, well you better go sign up. I asked “why didn’t you sign up in the first place?” My family, they signed up and now they are officially American…..” — Ava Noel
Mei – JAPAN
“I want Mei to have her own personality, not too much affected by other people. Japanese people are too shy. They are too much group minded. There is a Japanese saying, if a nail coming out it should be pounded down. People who stand out must be criticized. So it’s not good. If you have a different opinion, you will be expelled from the community. You have to have your own personality and show your personality to other people. Otherwise, people are just too uniform.” — Mei’s father
Carina – AUSTRIA
“I hope that she will hold onto a love for the mountains, love for nature. I grew up being physically active, and she already is a pretty good hiker. Where I’m from we have the saying – you always want to go outside at least once a day, and be outside for a little while.” — Carina’s mother
Izn & Azm – PAKISTAN
“Our major concern is to grow them as global human beings. Not only bound in one tradition or culture. The universe is open for them, whatever they want to learn. They should learn only good. Their names mean this – Izn is ‘permission for good’. It’s an Arabic word. And she’s Azm, it means ‘determination for good’.” — Izn & Azm’s father
Bereket – ETHIOPIA
“No one I know really talks about racism. Kids aren’t comfortable with sharing things that are private, and talking about their culture with other people. On Martin Luther King day my teacher puts on the speech. What I think is, don’t be mean to people. Even if they’re a different skin color doesn’t mean they act different. I mean, it’s just the color of their skin!” — Bereket
Wade – HAITI
“We came to the U.S. to have a better life. I’m happy to be here. I want to stay here, I want to be a doctor. When the earthquake happened in Haiti, I was 8 years old. We lost our home, and my uncle died. We stayed one year in the shelter. Life in Haiti is very difficult now. Here, it’s better when you have money. If I don’t have money, it’s still better. I will get money because I will be a doctor.” — Wade
Ivana – BULGARIA
“It’s good for people to feel patriotic about their country…. But just imagining that she is going to go and say the Pledge of Allegiance every day, and start saying that she’s an American, is a bit painful to me.” — Ivana’s mother
* Some of the names in these stories have been changed
Randi Freundlich, a Somerville resident for 30 years, is a photographer and social worker. She received a BFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has studied at New England School of Photography, Massachusetts College of Art, Maine Media Workshops, and the Griffin Museum of Photography.